RALEIGH – Researchers from North Carolina State University and Elon University have developed a technique that allows them to remotely control the movement of soft robots, lock them into position for as long as needed and later reconfigure the robots into new shapes. The technique relies on light and magnetic fields.
“We’re particularly excited about the reconfigurability,” says Joe Tracy, a professor of materials science and engineering at NC State and corresponding author of a paper on the work. “By engineering the properties of the material, we can control the soft robot’s movement remotely; we can get it to hold a given shape; we can then return the robot to its original shape or further modify its movement; and we can do this repeatedly. All of those things are valuable, in terms of this technology’s utility in biomedical or aerospace applications.”
For this work, the researchers used soft robots made of a polymer embedded with magnetic iron microparticles. Under normal conditions, the material is relatively stiff and holds its shape. However, researchers can heat up the material using light from a light-emitting diode (LED), which makes the polymer pliable. Once pliable, researchers demonstrated that they could control the shape of the robot remotely by applying a magnetic field. After forming the desired shape, researchers could remove the LED light, allowing the robot to resume its original stiffness – effectively locking the shape in place.